Cartridges in Transition 1850-80

There’s a traditional understanding that weapons development moved by a sort of punctuated equilibrium through neat phases, like these for muzzleloaders:


And these for cartridges:


But in fact, the conversion from muzzle to breech loader was complicated by a great many factors. For one thing, until it got figured out, nobody had figured it out yet. In that little tautology is wrapped the whole conundrum of how it took about 50 to 75 years for what we now see as the obvious advantages of the centerfire, cup-primed, rimless cartridge to become the modern world standard for service arms, and to drive the earlier systems out of “professional” use, such as big-game hunting, long-range target shooting, military service, and armed self-defense. (Most police service counts in our books as armed self-defense. No officer expects to spend his day shooting people, and most of them retire without ever having done more than cover a suspect with a sidearm).

Impediments to working out “best practices” included the state of metallurgy and manufacturing at the time, the delays caused by patents and patent squabbles, and ultimately, not only the natural ignorance of what those theoretical best practices might turn out to be in practice, but unclarity on and lack of vision of the potential that cartridge firearms would bring forward. (Probably not one in a hundred early cartridge developers imagined autoloading or machine guns).

Most people informed about firearms know that rimfire rounds were developed originally by Flobert and preceded centerfire cartridges by a wide margin. But most people don’t know how similar early centerfire and rimfire cartridges were, or how many other oddball efforts came and went during the years in which those ignition systems fought it out — or why centerfire finally won.

Most people can’t name the first successful centerfire (non-revolver) repeating rifle in the United States, but when they’re told the name, it’s a name they know as an important gun: the Winchester 1873. (Earlier Winchesters, like the Henrys from which they evolved, were rimfires). The initial ’73, in what Winchester called the “Winchester .44 Model 1873 cartridge” that later became known as the .44 WCF or .44-40, was a centerfire gun but it didn’t use either Boxer or Berdan primers. It used a now-forgotten system, the Milbank primer. milbank_primed_cartridgeThe Milbank cartridge had a sheet-brass base soldered to a brass tube; at its center was a primer pocket. The primer, when unfired, had the appearance of a firing pin dent in it already. These rounds were not reliable and Winchester changed to the Boxer system, and the rest is history.

Isaac Milbank’s patent is 93,546 dated 10 Aug 69; Boxer’s is 91,818 dated 29 Jun 69 (but based on his English patent of 13 October 66), and Berdan’s was 82,587, dated 29 Sep 68.

The US Army adopted the Benet primer, an internal primer (and there were other different types of internal primers), for use in the trapdoor Springfield rifles and carbines. Externally, these cartridges have a smooth back, like rimfires. The annular crimp is a give-away.

benet_primedThe cartridges found in cavalry positions at the Battle of the Little Big Horn site were Benet-primed.


As long as centerfire cartridges were flimsy constructions like this, centerfire was not deploying all its arsenal against rimfire. It would be the drawn brass, thick-head cartridge that would make apparent the superiority of centerfire over rimfire, other things being equal.

The armies of Europe were moving ahead, but to single-shot rifles. Intermediate ignition systems like pinfire and needle-fire were prominent in European ordnance circles.

Other oddities like cord and wire extraction were used in some early breechloaders. In these peculiar rounds, there was no rim, but instead, as the name suggests, a cord or wire was provided for pulling the cartridge back out after firing it. The flop-ear or rabbit-ear cartridge used a piece of sheet metal as the extraction hand-hold.

The oddest, though, might have been the annular-fire cartridge. It was an egg-shaped cartridge, rounded at both ends (the front, the bullet, and the back, the rear of the case, fit into a machined chamber). The primer was in a protrusion at the cartridge’s widest point. The Crispin cartridge (shown) was an annular-fire cartridge with a flat back to its casing.crispin_cartridgeThis protrusion made extraction relatively simple. In effect, it was a rimfire cartridge with the rim around the middle — something only worthwhile as a patent end-around.

Ammunition historians tend to lump these early cartridges in together as “metallic primitives,” cousins to the non-metallic “primitives,” cartridges used with muzzleloaders. But while they’re “primitive” today, the rapid fire spray of patents in the 1850s through the 1880s show that they were the high-tech of the era.


Hoyem, George A. The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition. Four Volumes. Seattle, WA, 1983-1999.

International Armament Association, Inc. A Cartridge Collector’s Glossary, n.d.. Retrieved from:

19 thoughts on “Cartridges in Transition 1850-80

  1. Cody pinder

    No amount of transition could prepare the world for smokeless powder (first practically used in firearms in 1886) I can’t believe we have to thank the French for this and they can’t even make a hooker smell right. don’t forget all the guys that blew up there homes, sheds and marriages for the quest to find something better. That’s what America is all about. Go U.S.A

    1. Hognose Post author

      Smokeless powder is a great story, worthy of book-length treatment that I don’t think exists. Like metallic cartridges, there were a lot of parallel developments that twisted and turned and overlapped. It’s kind of amazing how artillery shells were filled in the same period. Gunners just took it for granted that every once in a while, the picric acid filling would go FOOM on firing rather than on impact.

    2. DaveP.

      “I can’t believe we have to thank the French for this and they can’t even make a hooker smell right. ”

      ” don’t forget all the guys that blew up there homes, sheds and marriages for the quest to find something better.”

      …Better smelling hookers?

  2. staghounds

    Pauly and Prelat were making primitive center fire cartridges in 1812, maybe as early as 1808.

    Louis Nicolas Auguste Flobert wasn’t born until 1819.

    Center fire was first. True too early for the market and technology, but still first.

  3. James In Australia

    Pinfire always struck me as being dangerously impractical, was that another patent work around?

    1. Hognose Post author

      Actually, no, pinfire was patented in 1828 (Lefaucheux, France) so it was the earliest practical metallic cartridge. Early cartridges were copper, not brass (and much weaker than modern).

      Because of its popularity in Europe some calibers (8mm, 9mm) were loaded as late as WWII. Nowadays, you can get components and reloading supplies, example here (en français):
      According to the author, this book describes reloading pinfires among other blackpowder cartridges in Chapter 15:

  4. AnonymousFred514

    Just finished reading the history of ( the long, slow, painful history of) arsenal practice developing towards something that seems so simple and logical today: just developing weapons that had interchangeable parts with common dimensions and consistent tolerances and repeatability. Never mind fairly standard simple mechanisms for firearms.

    It _literally_ took almost 200 years of work by European and American gun-makers, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs from 1700 to almost 1900 to work out the machines, the methods, gauges, how to specify drawings with tolerances., etc… etc..

    Even early “interchangeable” parts guns in the _late_ 1800’s were so only notionally, as a rule.

    All the stuff we take for granted today… it wasn’t obvious, back then, and even when invented might take decades to propagate as best practice.

    ( e.g. Pinfires look stupid today, but if you had told flobert that “machine” guns could rip out 1200 rpm, he’d have looked at you in amazement: “Dude, I’m trying to get a reliable single shot out in less that a minute, for an amateur. 20r per second : bwhahaha, don’t be stupid”)

      1. 10x25mm

        From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Studies in Industry and Society)
        David Hounshell
        ISBN-10: 0801829755
        ISBN-13: 978-0801829758

        Professor Hounshell overplays the difficulties of parts standardization because he fails to recognize gauges as definitive standards. He really only considers parts standardized when reduced to engineering drawings. A good read nonetheless.

      2. AnonymousFred514

        The Dawn of Innovation (The First American Industrial Revolution) by Morris

        It’s not strictly about guns, as the title indicates, but gun manufacturing was the bleeding edge of manufacturing technology for a long time, the author goes into some detail ( not gruesome detail) on the evolution of arsenal practice in the US and relationships with other industrial enterprises, like cotton mills, the 1812 war’s ship manufacturing on the lakes., clocks , etc..

  5. staghounds

    Actually pinfire happens to be a work around of the Pauly patents- but a work around with benefits and I don’t think it was meant as a work around. Pinfire arms are visibly loaded or not, a significant value. And Lefaucheux’ casings were better than Pauly’s or Dreyse’s, the other pre-rimfire centrally primed firing mechanism..

  6. Slow Joe Crow

    Two questions come to mind, first was the Benet primer inventor the same person as the Benet Mercier machine gun? Also where do you classify early paper or cloth cartridges, especially ones with a built-in primer like the Dreyse needle gun?
    Thanks for another great article.

  7. Ken

    Regarding the invention of smokeless powder: Paul Vieille was preceded by Frederick Volkmann of Austria by about 14 years. Volkmann invented a modern type colloided nitrocellulose powder in 1870 in Vienna. Two Austrian patents were issued in 1870 and 1871 but were never published outside of Austria. The rest of the world never heard of Volkmann’s work. Volkmann’s invention culminated in several very successful smokeless powders that exhibited characteristics as good as powders produced in the early 20th Century. Volkmann’s work was all but lost when the Austrian government shut down Volkmann’s factory when they learned he was manufacturing sporting powder without government permission and selling it without paying the licensing fees. His plant was closed in 1875. See Sharpe, Complete Guide to Handloading.

  8. S

    One runs with what one has, not what one would dearly love to have. Re-arming mass armies with every tech advance has to await truly great changes, keeping in mind budgets, economies, urgency, and other factors. Eg: the EM2 and a skinny BREN in .280 with 7×64 sniper/mmg support via Mauser/MG42 could have avoided M14, FAL, FNC, M16, M60, FAMAS, G3, G36, SA80 etc. That’s 1946 to present, all playgrounds covered, and the infantry are happy little vegemites as happy as can be…..and a lot less supply contracts. Hmmm.

    1. Kirk

      The root problem is a failure to think through what the hell you’re doing, before you buy the tools to do it with.

      I suppose a successful tactical system could be built around the M14/7.62mm NATO system, but I’ll be damned if I know what it would look like. Pretty obviously, what we had going into Vietnam wasn’t it, because the guys on the line were screaming for something to deal with the Soviet AK-47/7.62X39 family of weapons and tactics almost as soon as they went into the jungles with their proud new M14s.

      The mismatch between “What we’re actually doing with this stuff” vs. “What we were thinking when we bought/designed/procured it” is the usual source of the problems. Tactics and operational art first; then design your damn weapons to match, whether you’re talking about rifles, tanks, or ships. We continually seem to be hell-bent on doing everything bass-ackwards, and keep right on ignoring the lessons to be had from even recent experience. Case in point: Where the hell are the organizational adaptations being made to account for the need for Personal Security Detachments out in the units? Does every ‘effing moron in the Army and Marine Corps think that the requirement to provide security for the commander to do battlefield circulation is just going to evaporate? Do they all think that the next war is magically going to step back a century, and have clearly delineated battle lines again?

      We lack a clarity of thought, and the ability to articulate what the hell we’re planning to do; in all too many cases, it’s just “Well, we’ll wing it…”. You can get away with a lot of crimes against nature with that attitude, but it will eventually catch up with you.

      1. DaveP.

        I’m actually expecting to see the “Commander’s Private Bodyguard” come back again…. but probably not until after we’ve lost a few generals.


    Fascinating technical stuff as always Hognose. I learned something new, which always makes it a good day. Thank you…much appreciated.

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